Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights – Explained by James Payne

As part of his video series, Great Artworks Explained, James Payne tackles The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch.

Hieronymus Bosch painted The Garden of Earthly Delights at a pivotal moment in European history. Explorers were discovering new exotic lands, Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa, Copernicus proposed that the sun was at the centre of our solar system and Erasmus was exploring radical new ideas.    


It was the eve of the Reformation and Europe was experiencing the first stirrings of a spiritual crisis, and yet it was also the height of the Spanish inquisition. In S’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, a man called Hieronymus Bosch had no idea that a painting he was working on would still confound and confuse viewers five centuries after he painted it.


In part one I discussed context and the meaning of the outer panels. In part two I will look at the inner panels, where there are hundreds of figures and hundreds of meanings. This is just one interpretation.  

There are no records of the meaning behind Hieronymus Bosh’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. There will never be an answer to satisfy everyone. Is it a celebration or a denunciation? We’ll never know for sure why there are so many naked figures, or even where they are. We don’t really know if it is the last judgement or hell on earth. And maybe that’s the point.

Was this painting intended as a conversation piece in the Medieval court of the Burgundian rulers of the Netherlands?


In part two I discussed the first two inner panels, in part three I discuss possible meanings, of the final and most controversial panel, Hell.  This is just one interpretation.

What we think of as hell, and certainly what Bosch thought of as hell is not based on the bible. There is no mention of hell as a fiery place of eternal damnation in the original bible, and much of what we think of as hell comes from later mistranslations and medieval art. What hell is or like, or whether it exists in the bible at all is widely disputed even within modern Christianity.

The grotesque visions in The Garden of Earthly Delights were not unusual to a medieval viewer, but Hieronymus Bosch’s approach was. Vague accounts of the afterlife and its existence provided Bosch with the opportunity to fill in the gaps left by the Bible. His work is as startling and seductive to us as it was to his contemporaries.

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